‘Napoleon’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: Why Did Josephine And Napoleon’s Marriage End?


Ridley Scott’s biographical drama film on France’s most well-known emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, has been a much-awaited project for quite some time now. Even though the film has not been received too well by audiences and critics globally, there is a genuine attempt to encapsulate the life of the military commander-turned-emperor in the work. Along with the man’s numerous actions on the battlefront, Scott’s film also focuses on his romantic life with Josephine de Beauharnais, which ultimately ended in a failed marriage. While the film might lack depth in its drama and presentation of the characters, it does make up for it through the grand-scale war scenes, making for an adequate watch.

Spoiler Alert

How did Napoleon rise to fame and power?

Ridley Scott’s film begins with a brief scene from 1789, during the historic times of the French Revolution, when angry masses held the royal families responsible for the severe food shortage and economic plight of the country. The punishment meted out to the royals was a merciless one, as they were sent to the guillotine, one after another. As Queen Marie Antoinette struts out through the angry crowd towards her death, a young Corsican officer in the French army looks on. This officer is Napoleon Bonaparte himself, a man with the desire to climb up the ranks of the army and serve his beloved country, even leading her if the chance comes. Despite being a gunnery officer at the time, Napoleon had the influence of his mother, the noblewoman Letizia Bonaparte, and his brother, the politician Lucien, looming over him. Because of this familial renown and also because of their participation in the Revolution together, Napoleon was close to Paul Barras, the head of the Directory, which was the governing committee of the country following the fall of the monarchy.

Paul Barras discusses the difficult situation in the port town of Toulon with Napoleon, and the latter is confident that he can come up with some solution. Visiting the town, which is heavily guarded by a number of British ships ready to fight against any activity of the Revolutionary army, Napoleon does come up with a strategy. He is sure that capturing the guns at the fort in the harbor, which is currently under British control, would help the French cause, and the fleet of warships can also be defeated in this manner. Napoleon knows that the execution of his plan would risk his reputation, as he writes in a letter to his brother, especially since the Bonaparte family is from Corsica and is not considered to be entirely French by some. However, the man also knows that a successful raid on the harbor would help his country and his own position, and thus begins the Siege of Toulon. As Napoleon leads his troops in the darkness of the night, he is evidently nervous, having not led any men in warfare before. But gradually, the protagonist gains confidence, almost as if the heat of any battle is the situation most suited to his character.

Napoleon’s plan in Toulon works brilliantly, as the British are defeated and ousted from the coast of France. A promotion comes his way immediately, as Napoleon is awarded the rank of brigadier general, but political turmoil still holds a tight grip over France. Maximilien Robespierre, the man elected as the deputy of the authority that took over from the monarchy, is accused by the others of trying to establish his own power over the country. Robespierre is held accountable for excessive use of the guillotine, and he himself is executed in the same manner after a desperate attempt at suicide fails. An uprising by the royalist supporters soon causes a stir, but Napoleon leads the military response against it, having no hesitation to order cannons to be fired at the royalists, killing and maiming thousands. Both of these successes made Napoleon Bonaparte climb up the ranks of the military very soon, and by 1798, he was one of the most revered officers in the French army.

How does Napoleon become the Emperor of France?

Napoleon’s first major battle overseas, as part of his plan for conquest, came in 1798, when he led a massive troop to Egypt in order to capture the land and claim it under French territory. From his very days as a military commander, Napoleon was interested in invading foreign lands and stretching the political map of France far and wide. According to the man, conquests through military warfare were the best way to lead his country forward. There have been numerous studies and discussions regarding the reason behind this ruthless and determined approach, as Napoleon remains one of the most researched leaders in world history. Even propagandist psychological studies have been carried out, claiming that the man’s short stature was the reason behind his fierce personality, leading to the term Napoleon complex. However, Napoleon does not succeed in getting into the mind and head of the leader, even though there has been a clear attempt. Only a few scenes in the film manage to highlight the egoistic behavior of Bonaparte, and more of it would have been truly appreciated. 

The Egyptian forces could not hold against the French, and Napoleon won what is historically known as the Battle of the Pyramids. However, his recent marriage with Josephine de Beauharnais creates a problem, as the man learns of his wife’s infidelity and immediately returns to France, abandoning his troops in Egypt. The Directory Council calls upon Napoleon and heavily reprimands him for having deserted his post, but the commander is not swayed. Instead, Napoleon criticizes the Council for having run France astray, citing economic trouble and an imminent military invasion, and creates pressure on them. Other politicians sense this shift in power dynamics and side with Napoleon, leading to the expulsion and arrest of the Council members. On the 9th of November, 1799, a bloodless coup was carried out at the Chateau de Saint-Cloud, in which Napoleon commanded the army soldiers against the remaining Council members, who were his political opposition. As a result, Bonaparte became the First Consul, or official leader, of France.

Establishing himself as the ruler of the country was only the first step for Napoleon towards achieving his dreams, for his eyes were still set on the rest of Europe. England had always been an enemy of his nation, and the widespread British colonies all over the world were like salt to the man’s wounds. Napoleon wanted to stand up against the burgeoning power of the British, and in order to do so, he had to look towards other forces on the continent, particularly Russia, led by Tsar Alexander. However, none of the royal families and leaders in Europe agreed to take the man seriously because France was without a regal ruler. This makes Napoleon go against his earlier ideals, as he crowns himself the Emperor of France after having previously fought in the Revolution against monarchy. When this step does not work out either, he launches an attack on Austrian forces, making use of his skills in tactical warfare and making a firm statement to the enemies. The attack and the victory of the French led to Emperor Francis of Austria becoming allies with Napoleon.

However, Alexander stays away from Napoleon’s grasp and causes trouble even after initially agreeing to a peace treaty with France. The French emperor learns that Alexander has changed his mind to join forces with the British again, and he decides to deal with the matter in a manner most accustomed to him. Therefore, Napoleon led his troops to invade Russia in 1812, hoping to bring the Tsar under his heel through warfare. But this was much harder than what the emperor had imagined it to be, for Alexander, too, was determined to not surrender to the French. After some fierce battles, Bonaparte and the French troops managed to reach Moscow, only to find the city completely abandoned. In order to avoid the invasion, which essentially was Napoleon’s method of having an agreement or treaty with Russia, Alexander fled Moscow with all his people and army and moved to Saint Petersburg. It was also soon discovered that the Russians had set fire to the city of Moscow, burning down their own metropolis in order to avoid any negotiations with the French. Refusing to accept defeat, Napoleon further pushed his troops through the treacherous Russian winter, which led to severe losses of life, and this ultimately ran out the emperor’s luck. After his return to France, the European Coalition he had formed now forced Napoleon out of power, taking away his status as emperor and exiling him to the Italian island of Elba.

Why did Josephine and Napoleon’s marriage ultimately end?

Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine Beauharnais first met during the Survivor’s Ball in 1794, and the man was smitten from his very first look at her. Sometime later, when Napoleon agrees to keep a young boy’s request for the return of his executed father’s sword, he learns that the boy is the son of the same woman he had run into. He soon starts to officially court Josephine, despite knowing that she does not come from any royal family and also that her now-slain ex-husband had gotten her imprisoned. Their relationship turns into an intense romance very quickly, with Napoleon uncontrollably in love with Josephine. They have an official marriage, following which the man expresses his desire to have a son with his new wife.

The relationship takes its first major hit when Napoleon is in Egypt, and he gets to know that Josephine has started an affair with a younger man named Hippolyte Charles. Without any hesitation or fear of reprimand, he leaves his troops in Egypt to sort out the matter. During this time, Napoleon also states that he has had multiple mistresses, which is a historical fact, even though Napoleon does not show much of it. Although the marriage mends to some degree, Napoleon and Josephine also keep growing apart from each other because they are unable to have a baby. The emperor is almost desperate to have a successor to the throne, indicating how power and authority have turned Napoleon against his own ideals in multiple ways. When Josephine was still unable to bear any babies with the man, despite them having enough moments of intimacy, a final test was conducted.

The test, which has the emperor spend a night with a different woman only to find out whether he is capable of having kids, returns a successful result, and this marks the end of Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage. With the confirmation that it was the wife who was physically unable to bear children, Napoleon divorces her after multiple public altercations with her about the same. He does make an attempt to have his close aides lie and say that Josephine bore this baby, but hiding the truth is simply not a possibility. Even though their marriage ends, Napoleon remains quite in love with Josephine, often visiting her at the house that she had been given following their divorce. The man marries once more, this time to strengthen political ties, as he chooses the Austrian archduchess, Marie Louise. After having a child with the woman, Napoleon visits Josephine with the baby as a sad reminder of the reason for their failed marriage.

What happened at the Battle of Waterloo?

Within a year of his exile in Elba, Napoleon gathered his loyal troops and returned to France, where he managed to convince the army to take his side and fight against King Louis XVIII. Although Louis remains the official king of France, Napoleon has the most political power in the country. The British politician and soldier, Duke of Wellington, calls for a direct war against France, and as he gathers his allies, Napoleon also prepares for an outright battle. He is as confident as always that the war, fought on land, would be won by France because of his superior strategies, but the Battle of Waterloo definitely did not go as planned. While the French were already struggling because of heavy rainfall and the strategies made by the British, Napoleon still led his soldiers into the fight. However, his efforts had to be stopped as soon as the Prussian allies of Britain joined the battlefield and the French army had to retreat.

During Napoleon‘s ending, the titular character surrenders to the enemy forces, even expressing a desire to live somewhere in Britain, which the Duke of Wellington absolutely refuses. Napoleon is spared his life but is now exiled, for the second time in his life, to the even more remote island of Saint Helena. The last six years of Bonaparte, as well as the final few minutes of Scott’s Napoleon, are spent in a much less dramatic manner. The man has to live on the island without any of his family members, and his beloved Josephine also died from diphtheria during his return from exile in Elba. But Josephine’s memory and his extreme love for her were still a part of Napoleon’s existence, for his very last words were about his beloved France and Josephine. Napoleon film ends with the seemingly natural death of Bonaparte, as a note at the end reminds us how over 3 million people lost their lives in the 61 battles that the man led in his military career.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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